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1. Our Food Supply Chain at a Glance

Published onApr 16, 2020
1. Our Food Supply Chain at a Glance
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New Yorkers love their pizza slices. They eat them while running down some New York avenue on the way to work, or even while working, the sauce dripping down their wrists and into their sleeves. Slices became New Yorkers’ preferred style of pizza because of the urban lifestyle of Manhattan, with its short lunch hours and mobile culture.

The New York pizza slice exists through a serendipitous combination of technological advancements and consumer lifestyles. When Italian immigrants came to New York in the early twentieth century, they brought their tomato sauce and flatbreads with them. But back then, the only tools for cooking those flatbreads were wood- and coal-fired ovens. At 900 degrees, they were—and still are—too hot to allow for the revered, reheated slices. Twenty years later, a new baking technology laid the framework for the New York slice as the arrival of natural gas deck ovens transformed the pizza trade. Now pizza bakers could use small ovens with low temperatures to reheat single slices, and in the decades following, New Yorkers adopted their slices.

The pizza slice perfectly conforms to the needs of New Yorkers who want a quick lunch they can eat on the run, with one hand. That simple slice of pizza can reveal the machinery behind the way our food supply chain works—and where it’s going.

Modern food supply chains are complex systems, juggling many intermediate steps as raw ingredients transform and combine on their way to warehouses, transported by trucks, trains, barges, airplanes, ships, and even bicycles. Sometimes, food products are processed several times—cleaned, chopped, packaged, cooked, or combined into sauces—and all in different locations and by different middlemen. There’s even a reverse food supply chain with its own logistics. Raw ingredients lurch, sprint, crawl, wait, and gather through a series of transformations called “farm to plate.” The “to” is what makes feeding cities possible.

The story behind how our global food system evolved could fill several books. The history of agriculture alone deserves a deep dive since it gives us an idea of how far we’ve come in terms of how much we can grow on a single acre of land. But in this book, the story about the middle part—the supply chain and its path from farm to plate—is our hero. Confronting all sorts of monsters and enemies, that chain of events somehow manages to get us fed, more or less, every day. So before we dig into our pizza, let’s define what we mean when we talk about food supply chains and logistics and take a brief look at how they developed into the system that fills our plates today.

The Evolution of Chain Logic

Food supply chains consist of a series of linked activities that occur while moving food from producers to consumers. These activities thrive on logistics. “Logistics” comes from the Greek word logistik, which means the art of planning for the purpose of moving goods and the related organization and equipment. It also relates to a French term, logistique, used by Antoine Henri de Jomini to describe the “practical art” of moving armies in The Art of War (1838). Jomini defined a commissariat as the coordinating center of an army’s food supply. He thought of food as an essential fuel for military strategy and argued that a deficit in an army’s food supply would lead to defeat in the field.

In that spirit, Jomini laid out the rules for keeping armies fed around supply depots that drew upon the resources of invaded regions. He believed an army would take about a month to occupy a region based upon that region’s ability to feed it.1 So beyond just moving stuff from point A to B, a logistics-based supply chain uses strategy, optimization, operations management, and quantified performance measurements. Today military and government research projects continue to develop logistics for feeding armies, and the innovations that originate in their labs often find their way to our grocery store shelves—energy bars, for example—or at least our camping supply stores, where we find freeze-dried meals that resemble military Meals-Ready-to-Eat or snacks originally created for NASA’s space station.

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the newly developed idea of scientific management led to practices that optimized workflow by carefully measuring and maximizing the use of time, labor, and standardized parts and practices while eliminating waste. Frederick Winslow Taylor, an early twentieth-century mechanical engineer, led the movement, and “Taylorism,” as his theory was called, led to further improvements in the production and transportation of products from factory to consumer. The idea of optimization became quantifiable, and we began to scientifically optimize the time and distance between farms and plates. When computers arrived during the 1950s and 1960s, the idea of logical, rational workflows got an extra push through the acceleration of data processing, followed by the development of computer-based forecasting and materials planning systems. MIT scientist Jay Forrester led the research that later benefitted food processors and manufacturers to improve workflow. It wasn’t until the 1980s, however, that supply chain management emerged, leading to supply chain centers in academic institutions. Food logistics acquired its own professional organizations, conferences, and academic departments. Automation joined with scale (large, centralized operations) to produce the global food supply system we see today.

During the same period, the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the development of ice manufacturing and refrigeration led to what is now called the “cold chain.” The food supply chain differs from other supply chains in its requirement for careful temperature control. Entrepreneurs such as Augustus Swift revolutionized the meat supply chain by utilizing refrigerated rail cars and vertically integrating all aspects of meat production.

The arrival of railroads and shipping containers contributed two of the most significant changes in the food supply chain. Railroads began to move food across long distances beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, and shipping containers, developed by Malcom McLean during the 1950s and 1960s, transformed how food moved on ships, trucks, and trains. The integration of these transport networks eventually became our international, intermodal food distribution network.

With these new technologies, the industrialization of our food supply gained momentum and became global. Starting in the nineteenth century, farms and food processing companies grew in size. By the end of the 1800s, companies such as Unilever, General Mills, Nestlé, and Campbell’s Soup Company represented the emergence of what we now call “Big Food.” Back then size was the optimizer. Centralized facilities and aggregated activities enabled more food to be produced at lower costs.

Throughout this period, machinery gained ascendancy over humans as productivity became the objective. Henry Ford discovered that by using assembly lines he could mass-produce automobiles. Food companies adopted assembly line production practices and industrialized our food system. By World War II, the world’s food system had gained more technology and logistics knowledge as a result of the necessities of warfare. Those assembly lines moved faster and produced food manufactured with more ingredients from laboratories than from the soil. We had become experts in producing food at scale with logistics and supply chains to match. The combination of size and scale with industrialization through the use of science and technology has given the world record-breaking food production at lower costs. Now all we need to do is to distribute all that food while making it more nutritious, maintaining freshness, and increasing access to consumers at all income levels while minimizing waste and any harmful impact to the environment, including humans. We’re on the right path to solving for all this, but not without some unintended consequences. We don’t really know yet how food, tech, and humans will accommodate each other. What do we know is that by keeping our eyes on four key ingredients that enable our food supply chain to operate today, we will increase our chances for success.

Four Ingredients That Keep Food Moving

Unlike many consumer products (such as electronics), food is fragile, emotional, cultural, and apt to expire on the way to our plates. Tacos aren’t TVs. Scale and automation have gotten us fed so far, but not without assists from other interrelated ingredients. These are reliability, trust, adaptability, and technology.

The path we imagine our food takes to get to our plates is very often different from the real story. Our nonprofit organization in Austin, Texas, Food+City, tells stories of how the food supply chain works in a small magazine that often contains a road map for all the ingredients in a recipe or a simple food item, such as pizza. Turns out, it’s never really a simple road map. It’s full of logjams, detours, and dead ends. And those maps point to the four essential ingredients that keep our food flowing to our plates, illustrating how reliability, trust, technology, and adaptability overcome these obstacles.

These four ingredients are evident in all the stories in this book, and they will drive the design for our future food supply chains and distribution networks.

After visiting cities all over the world to learn about how food supply chains work for the simplest meals, I discovered that no matter how simple or sophisticated the supply chain, every link required our four ingredients in service of one common goal: to transport food from farm to table quickly, inexpensively, and sustainably while ensuring food safety. These ingredients enable our food to move from producer to consumer and interact in ways that optimize the system that delivers our food to our tables. Simple menu items can reveal how those who work in the supply chain business optimize a complex system by leveraging these ingredients.

Reliability

Logistics experts in every part of our food supply chain strive for consistency and reliability. Reliability is requisite because consumers expect some degree of consistency in products they consume. They expect price comparisons based on comparable characteristics: a kilo of walnuts should contain walnuts of consistent size, texture, and taste; and those few slightly brown bananas hidden at the bottom of the fruit basket will probably move to the waste bin. A reliable supply chain allows for consistent pricing and quality, which helps meet consumer expectations and minimize food waste. Commuters who head to Joe’s pizza shop won’t pay twenty dollars a slice, nor will they eat a Margherita slice that has a rubbery crust one day and a perfectly crisp crust the next. And that slice had better be the same size day after day.

Reliability and consistency dovetail with predictability. Procurement managers expect food deliveries to show up at their loading docks on schedule. Air cargo brokers need that fresh Alaskan salmon to be ready and sufficiently packed for planned flight schedules. Spontaneity doesn’t cohabit with reliability much, and when it happens, it costs. When a food supply chain is reliable, it can minimize the risks and waste involved in delivering food to cities.

Joe’s pizza provides a rich landscape for an exploration of our food supply chain. Grain, oil, meat, vegetables, and cheese converge on one menu item, offering stories of how multiple ingredients travel through the supply chain. The late Salvatore Riggio opened Pizza Suprema, a shop located just outside Madison Square Garden, in 1964. Now his wife, Maria, and their son, Joe, operate the shop, delivering hot slices to commuters who spill out of Penn Station.

I visited with Joe and Maria, meeting them one lunch hour as they sat working through invoices and other paperwork in a corner booth at the back of their pizza shop. Maria is petite, bright, and alert. Her eyes constantly scan the shop, signaling her wait staff to clear used plates and glasses and watching for napkins left behind by hurried lunchtime customers. Joe is built like a wrestler—in fact, he does wrestle, but only as a hobby. Now he’s a family man, returning to the family business.

Both Joe and Maria are meticulous in the ways they choose to optimize their business. Before our pizza begins its journey to Joe’s shop, he has to order the ingredients through a process called procurement. He decides what to purchase, whom to purchase it from, and at what price. If he’s lucky and smart, he can keep just the right amount of pizza ingredients moving in the supply chain without waste and added expense. If he isn’t so smart and fails to optimize his operations, moldy cheese piles up in warehouses and coolers, and those Penn Station commuters move on to Joe’s competitors. Technologies, from warehouse management systems that include artificial intelligence for predictive inventory supplies to scanning and tracking tools that help manage shipments of ingredients, play into Joe’s ability to sustain his business for all these years in New York City’s very competitive food service industry.

Sourcing, as procurement is often called, can be local or global and draws upon technology, trust, and reliability. Joe buys his flour from General Mills, grown in North Dakota and milled in Buffalo, New York. The flour, called All Trumps 50111, is enriched with potassium, iron, potassium bromate, thiamin mononitrate, riboflavin, and folic acid, and it is a blend of wheat and malted barley flour. It’s perfect for pizza, and it utilizes individual supply chains for all those enrichments. He gets pecorino cheese from Italy and mozzarella cheese from Wisconsin. His Stanislaus tomatoes come from California through a foodservice distributor, probably Sysco. Having multiple sources for an ingredient that’s critical to his operation can lower risks and costs, but it adds complexity to tracking and food safety verification. And that’s where trust comes in.

Trust

Trust comes with experience, as we learn from our own friendships. Food suppliers rely on the transit of assets and funds in exchange for products humans consume. Relationships, as with many business exchanges, are critical when it comes to food, since one bad apple could kill someone. Not only is food safety a requirement for the supply chain to operate successfully, but the delivery of quality and quantity across the globe is also much easier and more efficient when you know whom you’re dealing with.

Sometimes trust will even trump convenience or price. One sesame seed buyer in Istanbul, Turkey, buys his seeds from Nigeria—from a man he has done business with for more than twenty years—rather than buy seeds from an unknown producer in his own country. And Mustafa, the owner of a fish and chips shop on Farringdon Street in London, depends upon close ties in the Turkish immigrant fish and chips community for all his supplies. He’s not alone—many of the fish and chips shops I visited in the UK rely on Turkish suppliers for ingredients and equipment, since the trust among Turkish business owners runs deep and allows transactions to flow smoothly—often based on just a handshake.

Fortunately for Joe, years of working in the pizza business has also built relationships that run deep. Trusted networks of suppliers come from years of trading employees, stepping in for one another when problems arise, keeping secrets, and obeying the rules of credit and other financial transactions.

Joe gets his ingredients using the operation of food supply chains we’ve had for decades. He may decide to purchase cheese at a higher price from a local farmer because he wants to support local businesses. He may also decide to buy cheese from Italy at a higher price because Italy is the only source of that particular cheese; or, he may choose to purchase cheese thousands of miles away at a lower cost because the product he sells is price sensitive. Joe trusts his suppliers, and his customers trust that he will find the best ingredients at the best cost so that their pizzas will continue to be safe, tasteful, and affordable. The people sourcing our food rely on those trusted relationships that determine the resiliency of the supply chain. Our food supply chain will continue to rely on trusted relationships between farmers and buyers and between product companies and processors.

If the four ingredients (principles, not the kind Joe puts in his pizzas) are important to keep our food moving along the supply chain under regular conditions, they become absolutely critical when things go wrong. During my visit to Pizza Suprema, we talked about Hurricane Sandy, which hit New York City in 2012, disrupting everything. The shop closed for four days, limited mostly by the lack of power. For the pizza man, the first thing to go wrong in a power outage is the cheese inventory. Flour, canned tomatoes, spices, and olive oil can last for weeks. But cheese goes bad in days—even four days.

To make matters worse, Joe’s cheese supplier, Grande, couldn’t get its trucks to his shop because of road closures and traffic. Of course, even if the trucks could’ve gotten through, the lack of power would have spoiled the shipments. Keeping the shop running would require another of our key ingredients: adaptability. So Joe called up his pizza business friend in Brooklyn, who still had power, and he got some shredded cheese to replace the cheese normally delivered from his supplier in Wisconsin. That adaptability is an example of the flexibility and durability that allows the supply chain to get food to our plates in spite of interruptions and breakdowns. By acquiring the cheese from his Brooklyn friend, Joe was able to resume his business in four days, which is a miracle considering that some New Yorkers were still, in 2013, not back to business as usual.

Even “business as usual” belies the complications of delivering a simple menu item and illustrates how those four ingredients operate to keep the supply chain moving. There’s a deli in Austin that makes a ridiculously delicious club sandwich. The store in Austin is part of Jason’s Deli, a chain of 275 delis located in 28 states. A few years ago, a group of students at the University of Texas at Austin worked with Food+City to track down the supply chain for the sandwich and found that the ingredients traveled to its delis from several countries, including Finland.

Jason’s Deli club sandwich consists of bread, ham, Swiss and cheddar cheeses, bacon, lettuce, and tomatoes, but each ingredient in the sandwich includes micro-ingredients, just like the flour General Mills makes for Joe’s pizza. The students found that the bread alone had its own complex path from wheat field to deli, and Jason’s story is similar to the stories of bread produced in other countries. Wheat farmers in Kansas grew the wheat, which was sent by rail to a mill that distributed the ground wheat to bakeries. Other ingredients, such as water, yeast, flaxseed, wheat gluten, and sugar, also found their way to the bakeries. The flaxseed came from Nebraska, the wheat gluten from Poland, and the sugar from sugar cane grown in Georgia and Louisiana. The flow of all these micro-ingredients needed to converge at a bakery that produced the bread. Then the bread would travel onward through a distribution system that eventually landed in a single Jason’s Deli location for assembly into a sandwich. The mustard, too, contained micro-ingredients—including mustard seeds, oil, and salt—and the theme continued across every part of the sandwich. Each ingredient consisted of several micro-ingredients, each micro-ingredient had its own supply chain, and if just one of those chains broke down, the whole sandwich would have to be reconsidered. Fortunately, the supply chain is incredibly adaptable, both positively and negatively, for finding substitutions and adulterations.

Adaptability

Jason’s supply chain requires sublime adaptability, reliability, trust, and technology to operate successfully. If one rail car gets sidetracked by a snowstorm, the wheat will mold. Or if longshoremen decide to strike at Houston’s port, the wheat gluten from Poland and the cheese from Finland won’t be able to enter the United States through trusted brokers.

Even when our four key ingredients are present, they don’t always lead to success. Failure to deliver food happens. The unobstructed, easy flow of the supply chain is the aim of everyone in the global food system. If we could achieve our goal, we’d grow exactly enough healthy food to exactly match the individual demand of all consumers, so food waste would cease to exist. The reason this hasn’t yet been achieved is because of friction within the machinery of the food supply chain. Friction points are points that cause the supply chain to halt, break, leak, or misdirect our food. Understanding these friction points may help us eliminate, or at least lubricate them.

Friction points include traffic and urban congestion, broken equipment, labor strikes, decaying transportation networks (including potholes in roads), wars, theft, electrical outages, climate changes, and trade sanctions. Any one of these conditions puts pressure on the supply chain to adapt and to re-create reliability.

The ability of the supply chain to adapt is critical to overcoming many of these friction points: Derailed trains? Trucks might suffice. Ports closed? Ships may enter through alternative ports and their cargo could travel to their original destinations in trucks. The system has to adapt, and the effort to supply food with some order of reliability enables the system to minimize waste, maintain quality, and keep costs down. Adaptability is one of the supreme ingredients of our food supply chain, and we see it in action every day. It modulates both friction and flow within the system as changes occur throughout the pathway from farm to plate.

It’s not just the “logistical” issues that fuel the need for adaptability. As consumers, we constantly create other friction points that require food providers to adjust the way the supply chain works at a moment’s notice. Changes in our behavior as consumers initiate a ripple effect throughout the chain as it adapts in order to optimize. We reject certain food items such as gluten or peanuts, or we embrace others such as coconut water and kale, creating wild oscillations in sourcing, production, and processing. But as we know that food relies on natural cycles of germination, weather, and biological systems, quick adaptations are hardly the norm. And at the same time, our preferences for improved labor and animal welfare practices cause food producers to scramble for new suppliers.

Consider the movements to remove antibiotics from meat, raise chickens in cage-free environments, consume less meat and more plants, and eat organic or locally grown food. An agile supply chain prides itself on its adaptability. For example, if insect flour became the latest food ingredient to improve health, it would require a quick response to fill its supply chain since the requirements for the raw material may be unique and unanticipated, requiring new storage and transport solutions

Beyond mercurial tastes, other changes in consumer behavior—whether based upon new health data, concerns about the environment, or prices—all cause the food supply chain to adapt. When the general public deemed genetically modified organisms (GMO) unhealthy in spite of established research to the contrary, the supply chain had to find new sources and methods for segregating the non-GMO from the GMO ingredients and meeting the increased demand for organic food production. At Whole Foods’ warehouses, organic produce must be stored above the nonorganic produce to prevent any contamination.

This means that grain storage and handling facilities will also have to be segregated, potentially creating pressure for capacity. This need for separation may, in the long run, lead to more direct shipping without any stops for consolidation. In the short term, additional costs and delays may arise, as each supply chain needs testing and verification to ensure no contamination has occurred.

Demographic change, another growing friction point in the food supply chain, is on the rise due to climate changes and conflict around the world. Increasing wealth in developing countries such as those in Asia and South America has created larger middle-class populations that demand high-end, sophisticated brands and products. Meat consumption has historically been an indicator of social status. A country’s improvement in its standard of living is typically matched with an increase in meat consumption. Despite concerns about animal welfare and the environmental impact of livestock operations, meat consumption is on the rise worldwide.2

Changes in the way labor markets operate also affect the flow of food—particularly elimination of the middleman. In the coffee business, Fair Trade coffee emerged as a way for small producers to sell directly to companies in countries where coffee is consumed, enabling coffee farmers to receive a larger share of profits.

As the sheer variety of foods on supermarket shelves continues to grow, the proliferation of what retailers call SKUs, Stock Keeping Units, is a challenge for any retailer. Each SKU represents a product, and everyone up and down the supply chain is tracking, separating, and managing more and more products. We want choices, and we have them: in the last five years, the number of SKUs in the grocery business increased by 50 percent, yet supply chains are still trying to keep up with consumer demands for these new products.3

We, in the developed world, have come to expect choices and variety in what we eat. These demands have only increased in complexity to bring us where we are today: pivoting away from our traditional food supply chains to a new, disintermediated, personal, localized food supply chain. And some big food companies attempt to appear as small companies by featuring an artisanal producer and sustainable practices. The boundaries between big food companies and small producers will eventually erode as we begin to see more technology and online sales flatten our sourcing landscape in much the same way as online markets appear place-less, inhabiting a digital world.

As the number of products proliferates and we advocate for local food, our supply chain finds ways to adapt. For example, the food industry has tried to adapt during the recent economic period of slow growth and low interest rates by consolidating in order to deliver shareholder value. Food companies have been merging or acquiring other companies. JBS S.A., Kraft, and ABInBev (the world’s largest brewer) are examples of food companies that have followed this strategy. As a result, the number of companies that produce and deliver food has been dwindling. However, this consolidation makes the supply chain more vulnerable through the loss of redundancy and diversity. And that vulnerability causes the current move toward disaggregation of the industry into smaller, distributed food companies that strive to be more accommodating, flexible, and responsible to consumers who want specialized products.

Joining changes in consumer behavior that require an adaptable food supply chain are changes in weather and climate, including natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy. During the winter of 2013 and 2014, cold temperatures in the United States increased the need for railroads to deliver tanker cars of crude oil to heat areas with frigid temperatures in a winter that lasted longer than expected. Hopper cars—railroad cars that contain prairie or seed corn—were replacedquo by tanker cars, thus delaying the arrival of corn for planting. As a result, crops germinated later and harvests were delayed, sending corn into the supply chain later in the season. To complicate matters even more, corn producers had a record harvest in 2013, but the railroads were so busy delivering oil and coal that there weren’t enough trains to move the harvest through the supply chain, creating backlogs in areas that eventually ran out of storage capacity in grain elevators. Three months went by as farmers were stuck holding onto grain that couldn’t find rail cars. Since there was less rail capacity, prices for shipping grain rose, and farmers, already operating on thin margins, had to pay more to ship what they could. In the end, the supply chain adapted by building more storage capacity and shipping corn by truck rather than by rail.4 This adaptability does come at a cost when the supply chain continues to change, continually adding to the ongoing costs of adaptations.

Any change in any one of part of the supply chain causes a ripple throughout the supply chain and logistics plan. For example, when powdered milk and soluble coffee became possible, new supply chains emerged to accommodate those new ingredients. And the ripples of that “butterfly effect” pass through state and national boundaries. One change in Bangladesh causes another in a Washington seaport. A discovery of slave labor in a coffee plantation in West Africa can result in a dislocation of dock labor, decline in warehouse capacity, and increase in coffee prices—not to mention the disappearance of beans from your barista’s roaster.

Even a change in currency rates, like the recent strength of the US dollar, can cause the supply chain to flex toward other sources of food. These changes may be long term or short and seasonal. Some of the flexing is predictable based on seasonal surges. The food supply chain has been adapting at ever-increasing speeds these days as the increase in the demand for organic food has outpaced the supply of organic farmers.5

Technology

In many cases, trust, reliability, and adaptability rely on technology. Technology has contributed to safer food, a greater choice of ingredients in our diet, and new transportation infrastructures. Since Jethro Tull invented the seed drill and the impactful steam and combustion engines came into wide use, food has never been so widely and quickly distributed. Now, new technology is affecting the food supply chain by changing the way we order, purchase, process, store, transport, and produce our food. The topology or framework of the technologies that have led to automation and scale, big and centralized food distribution, will have the biggest impact on our future food system. The move from a centralized, global food system to a distributed, more localized food system will depend upon technological innovations that will make all that data and all that connectivity work on behalf of a better, healthier, and more vibrant—and maybe even more human—food system.

But there’s a dark side to all these technological improvements. Viewers of the Netflix series Black Mirror are familiar with all the ways technology can be deployed for sinister purposes, and our global food supply is no exception. In 2017, Jason’s Deli confirmed a data breach that revealed at least two million customer credit card numbers. While this wasn’t a hack that contaminated Jason’s food supply chain, breaches in the security and safety of our food system could significantly threaten public health.

We’ll cover the dark side throughout this book, but this is just an example of how some of the four ingredients—technology, reliability, adaptability, and trust—can backfire, subverting their potential for optimization. But when used in a positive way, these ingredients keep our food flowing day after day. And since time is the enemy of food quality, every member of the supply chain must leverage those four ingredients to put fresh, affordable food on consumers’ tables.

As we’ve seen, Jason and Joe both benefit from the development of logistics and supply chain technology. The opportunity to optimize is a result of mature societies and technology. Societies that still rely on subsistence farming are looking for a way—any way—to get surplus food from their fields to the market.

Optimization is both an art and a science, but in the end, both art and science work together in search of the best or most optimal way to move food that costs less, preserves or improves quality, minimizes environmental impact, creates jobs that create wealth and satisfaction, and offers the maximum amount of healthful nutrition to everyone—human and nonhuman. This rationalization, an attempt to make sense of each activity in the supply chain, strives to optimize the path from farm to plate.

While the idea of optimization is the goal of food logistics, we haven’t reached peak optimization, and even barring friction-producing events like the ones we’ve discussed, everyday shortcomings in our food system lead to wasted food, time, and resources. The current outcry over the amount of food waste we produce is a sign of a lack of optimization. We may find instances, and they abound, where the supply chains appear completely suboptimal. But often, what seems optimal to us (exclusive focus on locally grown, organic produce, for example) is not, and the common practices that make perfect sense to the food-supply pros seem ludicrous to the hungry consumers. Circuitous routes that take tomatoes from Mexico to China and back to the United States seem inconsistent with optimization. But they are optimized, mostly, because of paradoxes that are invisible to the consumer. A paradox results when fishermen in New England send tuna to Japan to a market where sushi buyers from Boston purchase the same tuna to fly it back to their customers in New England. We’ll see examples of these paradoxes throughout this book. Watch for them, since they suggest how adaptable our supply chains are and offer insights about where we might reimagine how we can move food. And they also illustrate how our food supply chain uses optimization for someone’s advantage. We may think the path of those fish is suboptimal, but someone in the sushi supply chain thinks it’s the best option, delivering the best product at the best price.

If size and industrialization were the old optimizers, today’s optimizers include computers and connectivity. Much like centralized computing has given way to distributed, personal computing, the behemoths on the food scene are making way for smaller, distributed, more localized, and more personalized production and delivery techniques. The new digital and connected optimizers include applications for tracking, tracing, packaging, and transporting food. They are transforming how we will eat in the future and are rearranging our relationship with our food. The Internet of Things (IoT) is becoming the Internet of Food (IoF) as we connect food to digital data networks with more transparency. Cloud-based food, food on demand, and possibly even printed or lab fabricated food will become possibilities when nutrition flows as data through interconnected data highways. We can see this shift occurring in the way the food supply chain adapts to weather, demographics, conflicts, and scarcity. Faster data networks will enable faster, more distributed responses to these sourcing changes, and they will take us to a new level of optimization.

Technology is the big ingredient that will drive our food system forward. Big Data accelerates and improves reliability and adaptability, and new devices such as drones and scanners take trust to a new level. Future adaptations will include the gradual personalization of food as producers react to consumer behavior designed by consumers’ own health data. New sources of protein, such as lab meat made from plants or cells, will spark new supply chains for plant material and cells while impacting the demand cycle for animal-based protein. The power of big data combined with connectivity will affect the entire food supply chain, from production to transportation and distribution.

Big food data and the Internet of Food will accelerate the move of local, fresh food to our growing urban populations. Consumers will demand that these networks operate faster, pointing to the need for innovations that shorten the time to develop new sourcing, invent new ingredients, and change the labor component within the supply chain. If robots take over the food-processing industry, manufacturers may not need to concern themselves with improving human labor practices. But they will need to deal with the sea change in their workforces and workplaces.

In the future, disruptions in the food supply chain will be mitigated by new digital routing software that integrates artificial intelligence (AI). The lack of locomotives required to move food during seasonal shifts could lead to the Uber model for locomotive or rail car sharing. This is happening in the trucking business. Convoy Logistics, one of many third-party logistics companies, uses the latest digital tools to fill truckloads and trace shipments. If railroads could overcome their long-held resistance to automation, they could use data networks to anticipate uneven demand for trains and locomotives and move assets into place to fill the gaps. Some railroad companies are starting these upgrades, but it will take time until they move from iron-based thinking to cloud-based thinking. Many of the computer systems used by railroad companies are old and outdated, reliant on centralized computing rather than distributed networks. New rail systems are integrating new technology, such as the Silk Road project that will connect China with Europe. DHL has contracted with the Latvian Railways to build high-speed rail services, promising guaranteed transit times and integrated customs processing and tracking as food cargo passes between all the countries along the route.6 These new routes will move faster without the baggage of union bargaining and outdated infrastructures that would need removal or expensive retrofitting.

Another dynamic that provides opportunities for technology to optimize the food supply chain is demographic change, as people take their food culture and practices with them when they move from place to place. Immigrants from Libya, Syria, and Sudan arrived in Western European countries demanding their native ingredients prepared according to their own cultural practices. France now has a growing Halal meat-processing center within Rungis, the large wholesale food market outside Paris. Personalized food, based on genetic databases and AI, will enable these demographic migrations and shifting communities to bring their personal food preferences along with them, maybe through a facial recognition tool.

Severe disruptions caused by conflicts, both natural and unnatural, will draw upon the new Internet of Food. Food logisticians and suppliers often work together to plan scenarios that model disruptions so they can create contingency plans they hope they never need. These models will be more adaptive, real-time, and able to leverage quantum computers to model nuanced scenarios. Sysco and the American Red Cross now partner for the purpose of creating disaster plans for food distribution. But they may soon integrate virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) in dynamic training and modeling for disaster training. More robust networks and infrastructures will need to accompany these response teams in remote and underdeveloped regions. Without a basic road network and a power grid, emergency food supplies don’t get far. A lack of power won’t get you a bowl of rice. Hybrid networks may close the gap and include balloons along with drones for aid package distribution.

Agile adaption to changes in consumer behavior requires suppliers to find alternative sources in fairly short timeframes. Consumers react to information about food suppliers, production practices, and nutrition, and they can switch buying practices in significant ways. As the speed of information transmission increases, consumers are learning more and more about food, nutrition, labor practices, prices, and new foods.

However, those who are convinced that food supply chains are on the verge of revolutionary transformation often overlook one thing—the fact that, unlike TVs, tomatoes and other food ingredients perish. Tomatoes rot if left alone for too long, apples bruise and become untenable, spoiled eggs can kill a consumer, and just the appearance of imperfection can put a product into the waste bin. Trust in the food supply chain isn’t optional. Sure, trust can be created through specious methods, but food depends upon trusting relationships among everyone in the chain, from producers to consumers. If there’s a flutter in trust, the chain collapses. Building that trust takes time, and even though we’re familiar with rating systems and crowd-sourced feedback, in the end, a human is at the end of every trusted relationship. The thing about food and our future is that humans have been at the center of our food system since the beginning of time, but now we’re about to remove humans from our food system faster and more completely than ever before. Just what that means is unclear. We have some guesses: no more immigrant labor picking heads of lettuce, more choices for how we want our food delivered, and more fresh food grown locally. But what about us?

As our food supply chain becomes more and more automated, digital, connected, and smart, it will be held to a higher standard than TVs. No offense to the television industry, but food is fragile, and so is our relationship with it. Humanity is embedded in the very meaning of food, its purpose, and its consumption. You can put a 3-D printed pizza on the table, but the humans will swarm around it with suspicion, and the removal of the human baker twirling a pie overhead, puffs of flour swirling in sympathy, may have unintended consequences. It’s too early to grasp the full meaning of food tech, as we commonly call this digital convergence of art and science.

How will we find that equipoise of convenience and our thirst for transparency and trust? Maybe we’ll view tacos more like TVs. Or maybe we’ll protest the production of our food by engineers instead of dirt farmers. Either way, it’s too early to predict the future of food with any accuracy at a moment when new applications of technology are appearing every day in a climate of constant change.

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